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Barry from Australia is a questioning soul who looks at social issues from an alternative point of view and instead of asking, “Why?”, he asks “Why not?” He’s convinced that many of his previous incarnations were spent in China. He feels drawn to the people there; attracted by their rich culture and way of life. If given one wish from God, he’d reply, “I want everyone on Earth to be the same colour, speak the same language, and treat each other as they themselves would like to be treated.”
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Teaching in China - A Greenhorn's Perspective, Part 4    

By Barry Pittman
1883 Views | 12 Comments | 12/3/2015 11:33:14 AM

Three months had now passed since arriving in China in early September 2015.  The first month had been a period of settling in. The second month had been a period of gradual familiarisation with day to day activity.  The third month had given me time to pause and reflect more fully on my situation.  What were my honest feelings about China, whether teaching or otherwise?

 

This in fact was my fourth trip to China, so I knew the place reasonably well. My other journeys had all been thirty days or so.  I'd thus spent a total of six months in the country in varying cities, a lengthy enough period to give a pretty good appraisal of it.  This time I in a position to consider the place more carefully, since I was embedded within it as a long term working resident, with a real possibility of marrying one of its citizens.

 

The university where I worked had obtained documentation on my behalf declaring me to be an English language "Foreign Expert", thereby enabling me to stay here for as long as the certificate was valid for (in my case, twelve months).

 

"This is an important piece of paper, not to be lost!" the varsity man in charge of foreigners had declared to us all.

 

In any case,  let's look at my overall views on teaching in China first, then more importantly, move to brutally honest thoughts about the country as a whole from this Westerner's perspective in my next article.

 

TEACHING

 

Chinese students were much better behaved than their Western counterparts.  They were generally all polite and quiet.  Great stuff, yes? Strangely enough, the answer was not really.

 

These seeming attributes paradoxically weren't all good.  Often when I asked a question in class, the students were hesitant to answer, afraid to speak up. A cultural characteristic. Usually I’d have to pick someone out by name in order to solicit a response.  Bear in mind I was dealing with 20 year old, second year university students.  I'd been advised that younger primary or middle school school kids were more playful, more forthcoming, less reserved.  I gradually formed the conclusion that dealing with relatively uninhibited 10, 12 or 14 year olds would probably be more fun than instructing rather reserved young adults.  This may a good tip for any budding foreign teachers out there, contemplating a working sojourn in China.

 

This cultural quietness lead to spasmodic bouts of frustration on my part.  The students were generally too subdued for my liking.  Worse still, if I used English words or idioms they didn’t understand, usually no one would inform me. This recalcitrance took some time to comprehend.  I slowly came to realise that ninety per cent of the university students possessed mediocre English ability only, around 5 or 6 out of ten.  This was surprising, given that I was dealing with kids who’d studied English for at least ten or so years previous to this, as it was a required subject in every year of school.

 

One small example was the sentence, "Don't fidget with your fingers whilst standing in front of the class giving a talk". Simple enough, right? No.

It took me many weeks to learn that unless they'd looked it up, none of the students knew what "fidget" meant. Yet not a single person had queried this, they were all too shy or sheepish to speak up.

 

I increasingly had to carefully consider every slightly unusual word used in the class, whether written or oral.  Did the students understand it or not?  When preparing powerpoint slides, a teaching technique I used in every class, I began to routinely also research and then write down Chinese translations for many words, realising that unless this was done, at least half the students wouldn't know what I was banging on about.  An English to Chinese internet translation website became a necessary tool to use in daily class preparation.

 

I discovered also that certain aspects of English the students had learnt through their schooling was inherently incorrect. The Chinese English textbooks weren’t always accurate.  They were full of little errors.  Thus the students' knowledge of English wasn’t based on a solid, accurate foundation to begin with. They’d acquired many small discrepancies that cumulatively over time proved significant. This helped explain why their basic understanding of English wasn't high, except for a small handful of bright kids in each class.

 

The ten per cent of smart kids in the classes in fact made the job more difficult.  It turned out that they had received a lot of extracurricular and often quite expensive English training in previous times, paid for by caring parents.  This meant however that when my teaching was directed toward the ninety per cent of students with very ordinary levels of English, the bright students felt bored.  Yet as much as I wanted to, I couldn't raise my teaching to a level that challenged the bright kids, as all the average students didn't have a clue what I was droning on about!

 

At the end of a lesson, I sometimes wondered how much of it was really comprehended, since most students remained passive.  One needed to be quite patient and have an appreciation of Chinese culture, even though sometimes I felt like slapping them across the face, exclaiming "Say something, dammit!"

 

In short, it took some time to understand what could be changed and accept what couldn't.  One had simply to do one's best under the circumstances.  The job thus wasn't dead easy, but one that required plenty of cultural sensitivity and awareness.

 

I enjoyed teaching itself however.  It was a rewarding occupation.  I'd recommend it to anyone who likes kids or young adults, who has a little bit of tolerance and understanding, someone who enjoyed passing knowledge from one generation to the next.  I believe teaching is an undervalued role, as a few bad teachers in a student's life could quite conceivably extinguish the hopes, dreams and ambitions of many impressionable kids that they have control over. To this end, I treated the position very seriously, always doing my best.

 

In the meantime, at the time of writing the weather in Sichuan Province was turning cold. More frigid than I was normally accustomed to. It's an ill wind however that blows no good.  A foreboding precursor of things to come perhaps?

 

CHINA AS A WHOLE

 

But more importantly, what about China itself?  What was it really like to live here, beyond the initial stages of curiosity and excitement?

 

This was an intriguing question. An important and quite complex issue.  One that I had reflected upon carefully over many weeks. It took a long time in fact, before finally formulating a solid conclusion.

 

One whose ultimate answer truly surprised me. 

 

To be continued

 

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#2015-12-06 18:58:50 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Barry, you wrote the following:

"I gradually formed the conclusion that dealing with relatively uninhibited 10, 12 or 14 year olds would probably be more fun than instructing rather reserved young adults. This may a good tip for any budding foreign teachers out there, contemplating a working sojourn in China."

In reading this blog and remembering the former ones in this series, I'd suggest that individuals considering a move to China with teaching English as an occupation in mind could benefit greatly from reading the entire series. More than that, I'd suggest that if you were to take the series and expand on it with some more "how to" examples of various different teaching situations, and more "what to expect" examples of living in China, you would have put together a damned good little manual on the subject.

I think that would be invaluable for those people, and that comprises a lot of people, or should I say "customers" of the manual. Perhaps you already have that in mind, but if not, I offer it up to you now as food for thought.

My son spent about 6 years teaching English to smaller kids in Shenzhen and then Guangzhou. He took the teaching quite seriously and had a good reputation with both the schools and the parents. But over the course of that time I met plenty of young people who arrived in China on a tourist visa with plans to strike out looking for a teaching job, and most of them landed something. But they were so ill prepared for the job ahead of them, and so overwhelmed by the effort to reach a comfort level living in China, that many of them gave up and went home in pretty short order.

If those people had gotten on the plane with your manual in hand, and read it on the flight over, they would have disembarked with sufficient knowledge to be both better and happier teachers, and better equipped to wade through the differences between China and home with relative ease. It could have made a huge difference in their lives.

I really think you have something going here, and encourage you to take it a step further. It is excellent stuff.

#2015-12-06 20:40:25 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Barry
Interesting article, especially coming from a fellow foreign teacher in China.
Your observations are not unique by any means. I teach grade 10 and 11 students (16 and 17 year olds) in the international department of our school. The grade 11 kids will go to Canada next year to study and many of them can’t even understand a simple phrase like ‘What are you doing?’
Conversely, some kids in the same class have better than conversational fluency so I have the same problems as you have when trying to teach them all on the same ‘level’.

As for their ‘out-going’ personalities, last semester I taught grades 7 and 8 (13 and 14 year olds) and found many of them to be far more extroverted than the older kids

As for the Chinese-English text books.....I despair mate. There are SO MANY ridiculous mistakes, it’s not funny.

Recently I have seen two examples that come to mind...

You should always behave well in class, irregardless of what other students are doing
After the pen ran out of ink, it was unuseful

Irregardless???? Unuseful?????

What about ‘Animals should always be allowed to live in the environment given to them by the nature”
Or
The Sahara Desert is hot all year around

OK, so the latter are simple errors, but they are ERRORS nonetheless and there are heaps more!

As for your final comments about the weather - Yes....it’s getting BLOODY CCCCCOLD!
Having lived in Perth for the last 15 years (where it NEVER falls below 1 degree C), riding to work at 7am in MINUS 6 is an experience I had long since forgotten.
That said, when seeing students in class who are wrapped up in 12 jumpers and 9 coats while the air-con is belting out air that is hot enough to singe the hairs on your arm, I take great delight in reminding them that winters in Ottawa drop as low as minus 26 C
The look of sheer terror on their faces makes my day complete lol (well, those that can actually UNDERSTAND what ‘Minus 26’ means in English!)

I’m looking forward to your next instalment

#2015-12-07 15:14:28 by Barry1 @Barry1

@JohnAbbot

"if you were to take the series and expand on it with some more "how to" examples of various different teaching situations, and more "what to expect" examples of living in China, you would have put together a damned good little manual on the subject."

Thanks for the good idea John but sadly I'm not interested. It would take a lot of time to compile a manual or guide that could assist foreigners moving to China with teaching in mind.

I have no idea how it would then be published, advertised or disseminated. It sounds like a lot of work with potentially significant monetary outlay, if done properly. Advertising with Google ain't cheap, as I'm sure you're all too familiar with.

But you're right as far as comfort level goes. Talking about money for a moment, over the past three months, I've spent nearly everything I've earnt on clothing, computer equipment and various sundry accessories. If I bought a ticket back home to Australia right now, I'd arrive there having basically earnt nothing in China. Of course, if I stay here, my expenses from now on won't be too much, it's the initial settling in period that bleeds the most from you.

Other aspects of my Chinese experience will be discussed in my next blog article. These also legitimately relate to comfort level, which is much more than mere money. Hopefully some of the dreamers out there contemplating an easy, untroubled life in China may read and contemplate what I say.

#2015-12-07 15:34:20 by Barry1 @Barry1

@paulfox1

Thanks for your comments, Paul. It was gratifying to see that every point I made, you in fact corroborated.

The interesting thing is that if a teach here a second year, it'll be so much easier than this first year. Not only willI know exactly what to expect, but I'll then be in possession of a big portfolio of powerpoint presentations and lesson plans that I used in the first year. PPTs are something that can be used over and over again, after all.

As for the freezing China winters, we just have to grin and bear it. At least your classrooms have air conditioning. My ones at the university have none. I notice the newer buildings here all have AC, but in my case at least, I've been left out in the cold!

#2015-12-08 00:10:20 by anonymous14250 @anonymous14250

Barry, another great episode in your teaching series. Love the way you incorporate the word "whilst" into your writing, the only other person I have ever heard use this word was my grandmother. I think this word is underused and undervalued in the English speaking populations.

As a fellow foreigner possibly looking to teach in China I will wait to make a firm decision until I have had a chance to obtain and study "Barry's guide to teaching English in China"

on a more serious note: love the photos of everyday life in China and as usual Tina looks wonderful(marry her silly!)

I find it interesting that many Chinese women play with their hair quite studiously "whilst" having no clue they are doing so, they do this much more so than western women.

Why did you have to register at local police station?

Question: how do you think you would fare, would your thoughts of teaching in China and living in China be different if you were flying solo with no one to guide you and translate for you, basically the same way Paul is doing. Thoughts?

How does having family and possibly children back home affect you?

Paul, love to hear your thoughts on this as well.

cheers...(beer)

#2015-12-09 09:14:12 by Barry1 @Barry1

@anonymous14250

"As a fellow foreigner possibly looking to teach in China "

Thanks for the interesting comments, Anon14250.

In fact, many of the answers - and more - to your questions will be found in my next article, where the subject of Westerners in China is fully discussed, both the good, the bad and the ugly.

Please feel free to ask me any more questions, after you read this next blog, my friend.

Once again, I value and appreciate your feedback.

#2015-12-09 11:05:43 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

@anon14250 - Well with a request like that, how can a man refuse? Hehe

My teaching experience in China has many similarities with Barry’s but also many differences.
For instance, Barry planned everything well and he had Tina to encourage, help and support him in what was undoubtedly a huge step to take at his time of life.

My situation was different and essentially I just arrived with absolutely NOTHING planned at all.
I had no-one to help me (in the same way as Tina helped Barry), so it was head-first right into the ‘deep-end’. That said, I have no regrets whatsoever because often a ‘sink-or-swim’ situation in our lives can do us the world of good.
Our work situation are different too. Barry teaches in a university and I teach in a middle/high school. The one thing we have in common though, is that ALL classes have students with different abilities in English. This alone makes it difficult and challenging

@JohnAbbot
Your suggestion to our Bazza to write a ‘manual’ was a good, though a little late. Barry has said he has no time to write something like this as he’s too busy climbing Mt Emei and catering for Tina’s every whim.
I started to write such a manual some time ago but it’s far-off being finished

I’ll get one section ‘polished-up’ and edited and then submit it as a blog article so members here can voice their opinion
I have no idea how or where to get it published (ie, on-line or in hard copy) but I’m enjoying writing it and I guess I’ll worry about publishing when it’s closer to being finished

#2015-12-09 11:18:28 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

@anonymous14250

Oh, registering at a police station is essentially a formality (explained in more detail in the booklet I am writing) but in short, here's the reason

When you are employed by a school (etc) you get a residency permit so you can live in that city. The residency permit does not prevent you from travelling all over China, it simply allows you to LIVE in one city
Pop overseas for a short time and you have left the country via immigration and the local police have access to the computer system and will know you have left
When you return to China, the local police know you are BACK in China but have no way of knowing where you are or which city you are in.
Therefore when you arrive back in the city where you live and work, you pop down the local 'nick' and they register you as being back
Essentially it's a formality but one that needs to be done or you could face possible arrest - simply because they want to know WHY you didn't register
It's their way of keeping 'tabs' on us foreigners and where we are etc.
Other than that they pretty much leave you alone to get on with life - pretty cruisy really !

#2015-12-11 21:48:46 by anonymous14269 @anonymous14269

Barry, Paul I had asked in my previous message if and how having kids and or family affected your decision? This is a situation I believe would weigh heavily in any thoughts in moving to China to teach.

Thoughts?

#2015-12-12 14:35:20 by Barry1 @Barry1

@anonymous14269

"This is a situation I believe would weigh heavily in any thoughts in moving to China to teach"

I have no kids but do NOT believe it would weigh heavily on my mind in leaving them, if this was the case. The reason for this is simple - WEB CAMERAS.

These days, with high resolution webcams cheaply available, one can very simply have wonderful video chats with your family, every day if you want to. It's almost like talking to them in the same room.

So moving from one side of the world to the other is way different to years gone by. Nowadays, the world has shrunk so that wherever internet is available, terrific face to face, full color webcam conversations can be had with your loved ones, as often as you like.

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